Between pandemic and protest: introducing The Liberating Arts

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to join a group of gifted Christian scholars with an idea for a grant proposal. The idea was to respond to the crisis facing institutions of higher education, particularly liberal arts colleges, proactively rather than reactively. That is, to see the moment—pandemic, protest, political upheaval, demographic collapse, threats to the future of the liberal arts on every side—as an apocalyptic one, in which deep truths about ourselves and our culture are unveiled, as it were, from without. What to do in light of those revelations? How to shore up the ruins, and more than that, to articulate a positive and hopeful case for the institutions and areas of expertise to which we all belong, and by which we have been so profoundly formed, in the midst of so many competing challenges and voices?

Led by Jeff Bilbro, Jessica Hooten Wilson, Noah Toly, and Davey Henreckson, the proposal was approved and we received the grant from CCCU. Earlier this month the project launched, and The Liberating Arts was born. Go check it out!

Here's the description from the About page:

COVID-19 has been apocalyptic for higher education, and indeed for our nation as a whole. It has intensified pressures already threatening liberal arts education: concerns over the cost of college, particularly for majors without clear career outcomes; the popularity of professional degrees with large numbers of required credits; the push for badges or micro-credentials as alternatives to a four-year degree; declining birth rates; the growth of online programs and other hybrid forms of “content delivery.” Concerns over the practicality of the liberal arts intensify ongoing questions about the very idea of moral formation central to this tradition. And within our nation, the pandemic has exacerbated preexisting inequalities and racial injustice. Pandemic conditions have fueled a surprisingly robust protest movement that is powerfully, and inspiringly, raising questions too often ignored by Christian educators. These are particularly pressing issues for Christian colleges and universities, which situate career preparation, moral formation, and critical inquiry within a broader vision for spiritual vocation. 

This project gathers faculty from a variety of institutions to lead conversations regarding the enduring relevance of the liberal arts. We welcome you to watch or listen to these conversations and participate in these vital discussions. The 2020-2021 academic year will likely prove an inflection point for higher education as the coronavirus pandemic and #BlackLivesMatters protests accentuate financial difficulties and surface mission ambiguities. Might it be a tipping point in a positive direction, as institutions seek to better equip students for the complexities facing them? Our conversations will enable colleges and universities across the country to learn from one another in addressing these challenges and opportunities, and they will encourage these institutions to draw on the rich heritage of the liberal arts tradition, while acknowledging its historical limitations, in shaping their responses. Our goal is to think and talk in public about the enduring value of the liberal arts for the particular concerns and challenges of our time.

Other members of the project include Jonathan Tran, Angel Adams Parham, Francis Su, Stephanie Wong, Greg Lee, Rachel Griffis, Kristin Du Mez, Joseph Clair, and Joe Creech. Each week we will be posting 2-3 video interviews with different leading scholars, thinkers, and writers from a variety of backgrounds and institutions. The interviews will track with one of four main thematic "channels" on the website: questions about the liberal arts of a definitional, formational, institutional, or liberational sort.

Already we have videos up featuring Willie James Jennings, Zena Hitz, Alan Jacobs, Karen Lee, and Francis Su. We have many more in the can or scheduled, including my own interview of Alan Noble, which should be posted next week.

I encourage you to peruse the site, watch/listen to the interviews, and share what will hopefully develop into a useful resource with as many others as you can!


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